A History of Stained Glass

The use of glass in windows prior to the 6th century AD is only dimly hinted at in rare and obscure surviving documents. Sheet glass of the day was a semi-transparent, green-white material that would have illuminated interior spaces with a cool, mellow light. During the sixth century refinements in glassmaking allowed for the production of increasingly transparent glass.Although no examples of glass used in windows survive from that time, several widely varying methodologies were being explored. Thick slabs of cast glass (dalles) could be mortared directly into masonry walls.  Another simple approach was to insert bits of glass into carved or drilled holes in wooden boards. Most window openings required some sort of interior framework to connect pieces of glass due to the small size of the glass slabs, sheets and roundels being produced at that time.Pieces of glass were sometimes assembled within a wooden lattice. Similarly, very thin sheets of alabaster or travertine were sometimes used to fill window openings.

Eventually, the use lead strips for joining pieces of glass eclipsed other techniques for making glazed windows. The technique for assembling pieces of glass with lead had been refined considerably by the ninth century by which time it had became what we would recognize today as the medium of “stained glass”.4  The earliest surviving examples are fragments from the Kloster Lorsch in Germany (9th century), the Head of Christ from Wissembourg in Alsace (9th c.) and the famous Five Prophets Windows in Augsburg Cathedral (late 11th C. or early 12th C.). The stained glass technique relies on narrow lead “calmes” (strips resembling tiny “I-beams”) to join pieces of glass together. After preparing a design as a full-scale pattern called the “cartoon”, windows were built piece by piece. As each piece of glass was cut, it was connected to previous pieces by fitting the glass edges into the slotted sides of the calmes. When leading was complete, ends and intersections of the lead calmes were soldered together. Finally, the spaces between glass and lead were weatherproofed with caulk and the panel was scrubbed clean. The earliest caulking was made from a mixture of gypsum plaster mixed house dust/lint and linseed oil which added a characteristic soft-edged glow to Medieval and Gothic stained glass.5

As designs for stained glass became more detailed and intricate, they likely drew conceptually and aesthetically from older medieval art forms that anticipated the use of leading to hold pieces of glass together. In mosaics, the combination of brightly colored bits of glass and stone was already an old, familiar medium by the sixth century. The metal strips used by the cloisonné enameler to surround areas of color are highly suggestive of lead lines.7 Illuminated manuscripts utilized intense color and intricate motifs that also likely influenced the newer medium.

As is still the case today, the glassblower achieved various colors of glass by adding a range of metal oxides to molten glass. Each chemical produces a characteristic hue in the resultant sheet of glass.6 Ruby and blue glasses dominated the early glazier’s palette due to their relatively simple chemical formulas. Later, during the fourteenth century a fine range of secondary colors (smoky ambers, yellow-greens, and gray-purples) were added to the glazier’s palette.

The earliest detailed description of stained glass by a practicing artist was set down by Theophilus about 1122 AD. His Latin text, referred to as either “Schedula diversaum artium” or “De diversis artibus” (“List of Various Arts” or “On Various Arts”) preserved technical knowledge of a range of media including stained glass. An English translation, “On Divers Arts” (Hawthorne, Smith; 1963)8, provides amusing excerpts from this unique account that remain insightful even today:

PROLOGUE: ….I drew near to the forecourt of holy Wisdom and I saw the sanctuary filled with a variety of all kinds of differing colors, displaying the utility and nature of each pigment. I examined them one by one with careful experiment, testing them all by eye and by hand, and I have committed them to you in clarity and without envy for your study. Since this method cannot be obvious, I worked hard like a careful investigator using every means to learn by what skilled arts the variety of pigments could decorate the work without repelling the daylight and the rays of the sun by the use of glass alone and in its variety.

CHAPTER 6. HOW TO MAKE SHEETS OF GLASS: At the first hour (of) morning take the iron blowpipe, put its end in a pot full of glass, and when the glass sticks to it turn the pipe in your hands until as much glass as you want agglomerates around it. Take it out at once, put it to your mouth, and blow quickly and repeatedly. When you see it hanging down like a long bladder, put the end into the flame and as soon as it melts, (when you blow) a hole will appear. Then take a round piece of wood made for this purpose, and make a hole as wide as the middle (of the cylinder). ….Then separate (the cylinder) from the pipe. Then give it to a boy who will carry it on a piece of wood to the annealing furnace, which should be moderately hot. In the same way, by the same sequence of operations, work similar pieces of glass until you have emptied the pots.

CHAPTER 9. SPREADING OUT THE GLASS SHEETS: When…the glass has been cooled in the (annealing) furnace, take out all your work together and kindle a large fire in the furnace where it is to be spread out and flattened. When the furnace is red-hot, take a hot iron, split the glass (muff) along one side and put it on the hearth of the red-hot furnace. When it begins to soften, take the iron tongs and a smooth, flat piece of wood, and opening it upon the side where it is split, spread it out and flatten with the tongs as you want it. When the glass is completely flat, immediately take it out and put it in the annealing furnace, which should be moderately hot, in such a way that the sheet does not lie down but stands up against the wall. Next to it put another sheet, and a third, and all the rest. When they are cooled, use them in laying out windows by splitting them into pieces of whatever kind you wish.

CHAPTER 17. LAYING OUT WINDOWS: ….take the measurements, namely, the length and breadth of one section in a window, and draw it on the board with a rule and compasses. If you want to have a border on it, draw it and after doing this, draw as many figures as you wish. Then arrange the different kinds of robes and designate the color of each with a mark in its proper place. After this, take a lead pot and in it put chalk ground with water. Make yourself two or three brushes out of hair from the tail of marten, badger, squirrel, or cat or from the mane of a donkey. Now take a piece of glass of whatever kind you have chosen, but larger on all sides than the place in which it is to be set, and lay it on the ground for that place. Then you will see the drawing on the board through the intervening glass, and, following it, draw the outlines only on the glass with chalk. Delineate all the kinds of glass in the same way.

CHAPTER 18. GLASS CUTTING: Next heat on the fireplace an iron cutting tool. When red-hot, apply it to the glass that you want to cut, and soon there will appear the beginning of a crack. If the glass is hard (and does not crack at once), wet it with saliva on your finger in the place where you applied the tool. It will immediately split and, as soon as it has, draw the tool along the line you want to cut and the split will follow. When all the pieces have been cut like this, take a grozing iron and trim and place together all the pieces.

CHAPTER 25. CASTING THE CALMES: After this, make a hearth where you can melt the lead, and form a hollow in it in which you put a large earthenware pot and light a large fire over it. Put the lead inside the pot so that when it is melted it flows down into (the pot). Meanwhile, open the mold for the calmes and put it on the coals to heat. When the mold is hot, shut it, (and) taking a small ladle withdraw some molten lead and pour it into the mold. Throw the mold onto the ground and open it with a knife. Take out the calme and cast again. …. you will be able to cast more than forty calmes in one heating.

CHAPTER 27. ASSEMBLING THE WINDOWS AND SOLDERING THEM: …. take some pure tin and mix it with a fifth part of lead for use in soldering your work. You should also have forty nails. Then take the glass and lay it in its order. After this take up the head of a figure, wrap a lead calme around it, and replace it carefully. Then drive in three nails around it with a hammer suited for this work and fit to it the breast, the arms, and the robes that remain. As you set each piece in position, secure it with nails on the outer side so that it cannot move from its place. Now you should have a soldering iron which is long and thin, with a slender point, filed and tinned. Put this into the fire. Meanwhile (pour wax on) the tin sticks. Pick up the hot iron and, wherever two pieces of lead meet, touch the tin to it and smear them with the iron until they stick to each other. When the figures have been firmly set, in the same way arrange the grounds, of whatever color you want, and so assemble the window piece. When the window is finished and soldered on one side, turn it over on its other side, and solder it in the same way, and secure it firmly throughout.8

The preceding quotation of Theophilus may seem excessive for this brief history. However, whether one approaches the medium out of historical curiosity or as a practicing artist, the knowledge of and empathy for the nature and origins of stained glass is crucial — and has been often overlooked. We will see that, historically, the vitality of stained glass as an art form has suffered when the fundamental natures of lead, glass and light have been forgotten or ignored.

The cultural and architectural advances which led to the Gothic Cathedral also fueled the refinement of stained glass as described by Theophilus. Prior to the thirteenth century all of Europe’s cultural centers were on the shores of the Mediterranean. Northern Europe was a rural region with a scattering of castles (manorial estates), monasteries, and villages. During the late twelfth century, the king of France, Philip Augustus, took the first steps that were to promote Paris as not only the capital of the kingdom, but to establish it as the first true city in Europe north of the Alps.9 By the end of the thirteenth century Paris was a walled city with paved streets, Notre Dame Cathedral, a university, and a flourishing trade that supported 150,000 Parisians. Other areas where the town began to supplant the manorial estate included Ghent, Lille and Tours.10

The prototypic Gothic Cathedral was the Abbey Church of St. Denis outside of Paris. (See below: Appendix I: The Cathedral at St. Denis) As the burial place of French kings, the monastery of St. Denis received the direct patronage of the royalty. Because of this prestige, the capable and talented Abbot Suger was able to enlist the most expert craftsmen from all parts of the kingdom to rebuild the Abbey Church during the mid-twelfth century. The result is notable, not for its innovation, but for its success in combining numerous late Romanesque devices, such as the pointed arch and the ribbed groin vault, for the first time. With St. Denis as its model, the Gothic Cathedral proliferated from about 1150 to 1300 AD in the Ile-de-France (towns of the domain) including Amiens, Beauvais, Rheims, Bourges, Rouen and Chartres.11 During this time a deep, common religious fervor permeated local populations creating the enduring level of civic commitment and pride required to persevere through decades, often centuries, of cathedral construction.

Although there is perhaps no typical Gothic Cathedral, much can be learned without undue repetition by focusing on a single example of Gothic Architecture. For this purpose we will examine more closely the cathedral at Chartres and the antecedents which anticipated its style.

Rising from its surrounding village, which in turn rises from the slightly rolling countryside, Chartres is the dominating landmark for miles around. The cathedral represents the cumulative and united efforts of stone-cutters, masons, carpenters, metalworkers and, of course, the glaziers. As the ultimate product of a town and its craftsmen, cathedrals were the source of immense local pride, as well as of intense rivalry between towns. Chartres’ vaulted ceiling is 122 feet high; the cathedral at Amiens topped that by eighteen feet; and, finally, Beauvais produced the highest vaulting in its cathedral at 157 feet. (As was often the case, the ceiling of Beauvais cathedral collapsed several times during construction before its builders finally deduced the elusive structural solution which is commemorated graphically in stone relief on the final solution which still stands today.)

The unique public dedication that made these monumental edifices possible was acknowledged by Abbot Haimon who, after a visit to Chartres Cathedral during its construction was moved to write:

Who has ever heard tell, in times past, that powerful princes of the world, that men brought up in honor and wealth, that nobles, men and women, have bent their proud and haughty necks to the harness of carts, and that, like beasts of burden, they have dragged to the abode of Christ these waggons, loaded with wines, grains, oil, stone, wood, and all that is necessary for the wants of life, or for the construction of the church?…When they have reached the church, they arrange the waggons about it like a spiritual camp, and during the whole night they celebrate the watch by hymns and canticles. On each waggon they light tapers and lamps; they place there the infirm and sick, and bring them the precious relics of the saints for their relief.12

Construction of the cathedral as it appears today began after fire destroyed much of the Romanesque Chartres cathedral in 1194 AD. The triple portal with lancet windows above as well as the twin towers (without spires) date from the earlier church. The present, west façade was achieved by moving the portal and lancet windows forward forty feet to stand flush between the towers. Then the west rose window was set above the lancets with the Arcade of Kings and a gable on top to mask the wooden roof that covers the nave vaulting.13

Both towers are now surmounted by spires which is a rarity. Most cathedrals were intended to have two spires, but most were never completed. Neither spire was completed at the cathedrals of Notre Dame, Rouen or Amiens. At Chartres the spire on the right (as one enters) was completed first, and in many ways is the most successful in its simplicity and scale. The spire on the left side of the west façade is twenty seven feet higher, is the more ornate, reflecting the prevailing design morés of the early sixteenth century.14

The fenestration and other exterior articulation at Chartres elegantly echo the interior spaces. The nave is 53 feet wide and is flanked by aisles punctuated with stained glass windows. The Gothic architect has nearly eliminated walls. Supporting piers are oriented at right angles to the nave and are bridged over with vaults, allowing for the liberal incorporation of stained glass windows that had been inconceivable in the Romanesque period. On sunny days these windows transform the interior wall and floor surfaces into transcendent displays of color. The shafts of incoming light accent the system of arches, piers and vaults to create an illusion of magnified space and height.15

By combining the flying buttress, trifolium gallery and spacious arcades with the pointed arch and rib vault pioneered at St. Denis, Chartres’ architects were able to maintain huge masses of masonry in a delicate equilibrium of weights and balances while also increasing the number of windows at all levels. The weight and location of every stone had to be calculated in terms of what was above and below it, so that its force could be transmitted along the various levels until it was grounded.16

For decorative detail Gothic interiors rely predominately on the lines and surfaces of the structural members and the subsequent interplay of light from the stained glass within their spaces. Light and glass at Chartres are organized so that there is a gradual transition from the dark violet and blue lancets and rose window over the main portal, through the lighter hues of the aisle and clerestory windows along the nave, into the flaming reds of the transept rose windows, to a culmination in the intense reds and oranges of the five lancets in the apse above the altar. The interior masses and voids become activated and etherealized by the directional flow of light, and material and spatial elements fuse into a glowing harmonious whole.17

The dazzling intensity of the 175 surviving stained glass windows at Chartres is indicative of the emotional exaltation that inspired medieval artisans to create these fantastic places of worship. The glass does not exist separately, but is an integral aspect of the cathedral. Chartres was acknowledged as the center of glass-making, and the stained glass in her cathedral was proclaimed to be unsurpassed.18

When faced with the detailing of the windows themselves, Chartres’ stained glass artists preferred two-dimensional designs similar to the motifs that typify illuminated manuscripts and mosaics of the day.19 This restrained formality and the abstract border patterning allowed the stained glass windows to merge effortlessly into the architectural totality. The iconography at Chartres is dedicated to the Virgin Mary who sits enthroned majestically in the altar window surrounded by nearly four thousand figures of archangels, saints, prophets, bishops and canons.20

The symbolic and pedagogic aspects of Chartres’ stained glass are readily apparent at close range and, therefore, are more easily represented in photographs or expounded upon in academic treatments. However, the overall and transcendent nature of the experience of light within the Gothic cathedral is the true starting point when considering the unique qualities of Gothic stained glass. The prevalence of windows in the Gothic cathedral allowed Gothic builders and artisans to create monumental and dazzling places of worship that were heretofore inconceivable to the medieval mind. The expression of light within Chartres and other cathedrals of the time is the direct result of architectural developments that led from the more massive Romanesque style to the lighter style we now know as “Gothic”. Unpainted, transparent glasses act as filters that allow colored beams of sunshine to project into darkened interior spaces in a magnificent crescendo that unmistakably symbolizes the ultimate triumph of light over darkness.

Standing by itself, any written overview of the incredible, multidisciplinary wonders revealed in the Gothic Cathedral and its stained glass will be hopelessly incomplete. To be fully appreciated, a cathedral must be directly and subjectively experienced. The words of Abbot Suger may provide an inkling of the subliminal wonder of Gothic stained glass:

Thus, when – out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God – the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from eternal cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior realm to that higher world in an anagogical manner.21

Beginning in the mid-thirteenth century stained glass began to become less distinct as a unique medium due to the increased use of a variety surface treatments. Black or dark neutral paint had been use to add detail and shading to stained glass from its earliest history. This paint was a mixture of copper or iron oxide, powdered glass and a binding agent such as wine and gum arabic. Paint was applied directly as “trace” painting, or in a subtractive method called “matte” painting, and later in the lacy “grisaille” style.22 . During the fourteenth century a yellow stain was introduced composed of sliver nitrate in a binder of clay or ochre. This new stain produced highlights ranging from lemon yellow to deep orange.23 Ruby glass had to be flashed in thin layers onto a base of clear glass due to the opacity of all but the thinnest films of the red glass. Fifteenth century artisans discovered that by selectively abrading away the thin flashed layer of red, they could add new graphic detail to their windows. Soon flashed glasses in many colors were available for etching.24

With these and other techniques for the surface treatment of glass (i.e.: painting, staining and etching) the glass artisan became highly sophisticated in the surface treatment of glass itself, while becoming less and less empathetic towards lead and line, glass and light. Although often successful from a painterly point-of-view, stained glass during this period came to deny its glassness. At this time stained glass existed as a specialized branch of painting similar to fresco and easel painting rather than as a distinct medium.

Unsurprisingly, it was early during this period that the first uses of the English term “stained glass” appear. This is actually a misnomer probably first coined by English speaking observers of medieval glass painters in France who erroneously inferred that the color in stained glass windows was imparted by painting or “staining”. The term’s imprecision reflects just how thoroughly surface treatment had come to obscure the traditional concept of glass as filter. For this reason the stained glass of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can best be evaluated in terms of its painterly imagery, and not with regard to its use of glass, lead and light to transform interior spaces.25 Viollet-le-duc was moved to complain of “tonalities that have the great fault of lacking luminosity, and give to interiors a false light, seemingly without depth. In a building permeated with this lamp-like light, one feels oppressed.26

Except for refinements in glass cutting with the development of the diamond and steel-wheeled glasscutters; and the discovery of wet etching with hydrofluoric acid, there was little significant progress in the technique of stained glass until the 1840’s. As glass-painting eclipsed the original attitudes of Gothic glaziers about glass and light, stained glass painters demanded less and less from their glass “canvas” in terms of color, transparency and texture. Hand- and machine-rolled glasses took the place of mouthblown sheet glass so completely that the technique for producing mouthblown sheet glass was lost and forgotten. In practice, many glass painters relied extensively on, and even preferred, the inexpensive, machine-made glass that was used in the glazing of ordinary windows.27

During the Gothic Revival Period in the 1840’s Charles Winston inspired the painstaking research that led to the rediscovery of the Gothic process for blowing sheet glass which fortunately had been carefully documented by Theophilus and others. Mouthblown sheet glass is often referred to as antique glass which the technique indeed was to its nineteenth century re-discoverers. The modern stained glass palette would otherwise be without the rich variety of mouthblown glasses which are indistinguishable from glasses found in Gothic Cathedrals.28 With the rediscovery of antique glass, all of the essential techniques and materials for leading glass were again available to the stained glass artisan. Many of these techniques have since been electrified, plasticized, or otherwise altered, but in principle and practice stained glass methodology had come of age by 1850.


“In medieval European cathedrals, the glass sometimes looks odd. Some panes are thicker at the bottom than they are at the top. The seemingly solid glass appears to have melted. This is evidence, say tour guides, Internet rumors and even high school chemistry teachers, that glass is actually a liquid. And, because glass is hard, it must be a supercooled liquid.

“Glass, however, is actually neither a liquid—supercooled or otherwise—nor a solid. It is an amorphous solid—a state somewhere between those two states of matter. And yet glass’s liquidlike properties are not enough to explain the thicker-bottomed windows, because glass atoms move too slowly for changes to be visible. . .

. . . “Why old European glass is thicker at one end probably depends on how the glass was made. At that time, glassblowers created glass cylinders that were then flattened to make panes of glass. The resulting pieces may never have been uniformly flat and workers installing the windows preferred, for one reason or another, to put the thicker sides of the pane at the bottom. This gives them a melted look, but does not mean glass is a true liquid.”29

NOTE: Before continuing, it should be noted that the western tradition of stained glass is not the only such tradition. By the thirteenth century colored glass was being incorporated into breathtaking windows in the Middle East using a very different methodology that relies on an intricately carved gypsum framework to hold glass together in shimmering, tessellated patterns. Early examples of this “Gypsum Technique” can still be seen in the windows of Kalawon Mausoleum in Cairo completed in 1284. As a well suited expression of stained glass reflecting the cultural, geographic and religious context of the Middle East, these windows produce a gem-like shimmering surface whose three-dimensionality relies, not only on glass’s transparency, but upon the carved gypsum/plaster matrix with slanted openings for glass and intricately detailed surfaces. These glass openings are carefully slanted at an angle equal to the viewing angle from below. 30

Fifteenth century commerce and colonialism served to disseminate western stained glass into other countries and cultures. Interesting and unusual applications of western stained glass are often unexpectedly encountered in areas where other cultural and aesthetic traditions have had historical interactions with those of the West (i.e.: Indian and Arabian peninsulas, Southeast Asia, Northern Africa). Later, during the twentieth century, the reconsideration of stained glass has expanded and now reverberates around the globe among all countries.

Now to return to the western stained glass tradition: So far we have followed the rise of stained glass from its dim origins prior to the sixth century to its glorious expression in the early Gothic Cathedral. We then watched the gradual erosion of the original, fundamental concepts about stained glass as a filter of light by an obsession with glass-painting that began during the late thirteenth century. The lost potential was restored by the Gothic Revivalists, but was this potential ever realized? Did Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LeFarge advance our awareness of glass and light and art with their popular foiled confections at the end of the last century?

We must also remember that advances in architecture, its materials and technologies since the turn of the century have not been accompanied by cohesive and empathetic developments in stained glass design. Unlike the dramatic blossoming of stained glass that heralded Gothic architecture’s displacement of the earlier, heavier Romanesque style, stained glass in the 20th century has largely failed to take advantage of the new architectural vernacular and its imaginative fenestration of buildings. With larger and larger windows designed into both secular and religious spaces, stained glass design is still often conceptually reminiscent of the narrow, self-contained lancet windows as well as larger rose windows of the Gothic cathedral (rose windows can be seen to be collections of smaller “lights” within a heavy masonry tracery). In light of new architectural possibilities, the continued use of stained glass as two dimensional painter’s canvas for pre-Victorian imagery, is an opportunity lost.

Fortunately, the possibilities for intermingling of interior and exterior spaces through an expansive, uplifting sense of spatial flow in a more complete celebration of sunlight and landscape beyond were not completely ignored. By considering some of the less acclaimed developments in stained glass since the turn of the century, we may be able to better evaluate this medium in the larger context of the arts and architecture in general.

By the end of World War II, about one hundred years after the Gothic Revivalists and about fifty years after the advent of “modern art” (at least in other media), stained glass continued without vital contact between the glass-painters and the significant artists of the day, and in all directions there is a relapse into a servile and lifeless imitation of medieval mannerisms.30 This is understandable in light of the fact that it was the Gothic Revivalists who had rediscovered the lost technology. While the revivalists were consciously seeking to duplicate a centuries old, lost medium, those who followed made the default assumption that this ancient medium had no relevance to contemporary ideas and art.– with one significant exception.32

To understand why this exception is significant, it is necessary to first understand the activities in stained glass that were typical during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First, there was the tedious repetition of age old ideas as practiced by the traditional production studios. These studios were an outgrowth of the evolution of medieval glass guilds into the post-Industrial Revolution era combined with the resurrection of the original glass craft in the 1840’s. With one eye riveted on the past, these studios also produced glass in the ornamental idioms of the Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. Very few workers could persevere through a rigid training system based on numbing repetition of tasks to advance beyond their apprenticeship to the level of master craftsman.33 There were no opportunities for balancing this training with exposure to current ideas in other media through formal training in the fine arts.34

Secondly, there were numerous collaborative efforts between the studios and acclaimed artists who were proficient in other media including Josef Albers, Georges Braque, Georges Roualt, Marc Chagall, Fernand Leger and Henri Matisse. These attempts seemed to be always celebrated out of all proportion to their artistic merit. Robert Sowers’ comments on the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, which is actually one of the more successful artisan/artist efforts, adds perspective:

The Vence windows, magnificently, intuitively right though they are, are less like the late work of the greatest colorist of our time, than the first notable achievement of a very promising young stained glass artist – which Matisse at the age of eighty was.35

And finally, stained glass was being used honestly and unpretentiously in architecture by architects including Antonio Gaudi, Charles Mackintosh and Frank Loyd Wright.36

It is in this context that the work done by and inspired by Johannes Thorn Prikker around the turn of the century takes on a special vitality and significance. Thorn Prikker explored the potential of glass in terms of pure color and light through abstract design while reconsidering Christian iconography and symbols with a fresh originality. In a time when the world expected innovations in glass to consist of half-assimilated hand-me-downs from painting37, this German’s work, deeply rooted in the simple, original elements of the craft, is the first, sustained example of a stained glass artist thinking and working in their familiar medium38. It is interesting to note that while the exact nature of influence remains obscure, Thorn Prikker’s work undeniably echoes and reiterates the stained glass that Wright had used earlier to enhance the perception of light within, and views from his architecture.

Two of Thorn Prikker’s students, Anton Wendling and Heinrich Campendonk, were in turn the torchbearers who inspired, influenced or instructed many present-day German glass artists including Ludwig Schaffrath, Johannes Schreiter, Wilhelm Bushulte, Georg Meistermann, Hubert Spierling and Paul Weigmann.39 What was spawned by Thorn Prikker and his successors is the first school of stained glass since the Middle Ages.40

Besides an empathy for the beauty of glass and color, the German School also possessed a fascination with the unique linear potential of leadwork in stained glass. Since the 15th century, lead lines had come to be seen as necessary evils due to both the emphasis on glass painting and the technical difficulty of cutting intricate shapes in glass. The German’s serious, rigorous and guardedly joyous rediscovery of the beauty of line guided them to produce windows in an idiom that could not exist without both unadulterated glass and sensitively articulated leading. The loss of awareness of line that took place in Gothic times continues to challenge and inspire many modern glass artists.

The seeds sown by Thorn Prikker and the German School probably would not have flourished without a series of circumstances in Germany that nourished them: the opportunity to restore and rebuild windows after World War II, an enlightened local patronage, and a tradition of architectural arts and crafts that were embraced by the fine arts.41 It is tantalizing, albeit frustrating, to wonder how many viable seeds have been sown, by how many artists communicating through glass, only to succumb to the dormancy imposed on them by a less than sensitive, infertile environment.

While the work of the German School reinstated stained glass as a viable art form, the actual technique for making stained glass was still a secret that was fiercely guarded by fabrication studios much as craft guilds of medieval Europe had shrouded their craft in mystery. All major work by the German artists was still being fabricated by these studios. Similarly, American stained glass studios rigorously protected the secrets of the trade from public view, continuing a tradition that reached all the way back to Gothic guilds. Stained glass techniques were parsimoniously bestowed on workers through a long, laborious and clandestine apprenticeship system. Most workers labored their entire careers without any expectation of being allowed to actually design stained glass. Then in the 1960’s the cat was let out of the bag.

The New Glass Movement arose spontaneously among a number of American artists, especially on the West coast. Perhaps in step with the antiauthoritarianism of the times, these artists began ferreting out the technical secrets of stained glass on their own. One of them, Peter Mollica, who had apprenticed in a major east coast studio, even had the audacity to reveal his knowledge in a popular pair of how-to books, Stained Glass Primer I and II. Otto Rigan’s New Glass was a pictorial documentation of stained glass artists that inspired many. In addition, several English translations of Theophilus’ “De diversis artibus” (“On Various Arts”), the eleventh century how-to treatise on stained glass quoted above, became widely available.

Elsewhere, Paul A. Dufour was helping advance the cause. Dufour’s extensive and diverse academic training included studies with color-theorist Josef Albers (who, himself, had re-invented stained glass technique during his Bauhaus years). Concurrently with developments on the west coast, Dufour was intensely pursuing a dual career as painter and fine arts professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. After receiving a commission in 1963 to create stained glass for the St. Joseph Chapel at the Catholic Student Center in Baton Rouge, he was unable to find a traditional studio willing to collaborate with him as designer. As did his west coast counterparts, Dufour shrugged his shoulders and set out to demystify the “lost art of stained glass” on his own. After designing and fabricating the Resurrection Window for the center, Paul enthusiastically continued working in his new-found medium. By 1967 he was ready to formalize his mastery of stained glass into an undergraduate fine arts degree in LSU’s Fine Arts Department – the first of its kind in the world. A Master of Fine Arts degree in stained glass was approved in 1971.

Another notable demystifier of stained glass in England was artist and educator Patrick Reyntiens. His The Technique of Stained Glass became the primary textbook for LSU’s stained glass program.

As these “secrets” were slowly revealed, a whole new generation of artists gravitated to this versatile and enticing “new” medium. Their work continues to inspire other artists and art patrons throughout the world. To chronicle more recent developments in stained glass is tempting. However, without the hand-lens that the intervention of time can provide, such an endeavor by this participant would be mostly myopic speculation. Hopefully, the benefit of this look back at the history of stained glass will be the gift of a deeper reverence for and sensitivity towards this mysterious union of glass and lead and light.

Jeff G. Smith ©1996, 2022


1. Konrad Pfaff, Introduction to: Ludwig Schaffrath – Glasmalerei + Mosaik, translated by Rozemarjn van der Horst, Scherpe Verlag Krefeld, West Germany, 1979, p. 21
2. Robert Sowers, The Language of Stained Glass, Timber Grove Press, Forest Grove, Oregon, 1981, p. 35
3. Lawrence Lee, George Seddon, and Francis Stephens, Stained Glass, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1976, p. 13
4. Ibid, p. 13
5. Paul A. Dufour, lecture notes: Jeff G. Smith, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge, 1974.
6. Gottfried Frenzel, The Restoration of Medieval Stained Glass, “Scientific American: Science and the Arts”, New York, NY, supplement 1985, p. 90.
7. Lawrence, op cit., p. 12
8. Theophilus, On Divers Arts, translated by J.G. Hawthorne & C.S. Smith, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1979, pp. 47-48, 54-55, 57, 61-63, 67-70.
9. William Fleming, Arts and Ideas, Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, Inc., New York p. 127
10. Ibid, p. 127
11. Ibid, p. 130
12. Ibid, p. 130
13. Ibid, p. 130
14. Ibid, p. 131
15. Ibid, p. 132
16. Ibid, p. 133
17. Ibid, p. 134
18. Ibid, p. 138
19. Ibid, p. 139
20. Ibid, p. 139
21. Ibid, p. 140 – 141
22. Frenzel, op cit., p. 90
23. Sowers, op cit., p. 79
24. Ibid, p. 79
25. Ibid, p. 79
26. Ibid, p. 82
27. Ibid, p. 82
28. Ibid, p. 66
29. Clara Curtin, Fact or Fiction?: Glass Is a (Supercooled) Liquid, “Scientific American”, New York, NY, February 22, 2007.
30. Alia Youssef, The Gypsum Technique, “Stained Glass Magazine”, Kansas City, Spring 1996, pp. 35 -37.
31. Sowers, op cit., p. 107 (Herbert Reed quotation)
32. Ibid, p. 107
33. Paul A. Dufour, lecture notes: Jeff G. Smith, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge, 1977.
34. Sowers, op cit., p. 107-108
35. Ibid, p. 108-111
36. Ibid, p. 111
37. Ibid, p. 122, 162
38. Ibid, p. 162
39. Ludwig Schaffrath, lecture notes: Jeff G. Smith, Berkeley, CA 1978.
40. Sowers, op cit., p. 111
41. Ibid, p. 122


The following is a fictional account of the cathedral in the Gothic town of St. Denis, France (a suburb of modern-day Paris; pronounced “denny”).  The Cathedral of St. Denis was begun in 1136 under the direction of Abbot Suger and was the first major structure built in the Gothic style. 

This excerpt is from The Pillars of the Earth (1989) by Ken Follett (there are now many editions, i.e.: Viking/Penguin Random House; New York, NY; 2016; Chapter 12, pages 693-696).  Besides being the first book in Follett’s Kingsbridge series of spellbinding tales set in Medieval England, this passage offers a well-researched description of a generalized Gothic Cathedral that contrasts the Gothic style with the Romanesque style it was already beginning to replace. 

The account that follows is told from the point of view of one of the story’s protagonists, Jack Jackson, a stone mason and aspiring cathedral builder. During the early 1140’s Jack left his native England, to trek across Spain and France in search of the latest innovations in cathedral architecture and engineering.


Jack’s lodgings were in the rue de la Boucherie, in a suburb of Paris on the left bank of the Seine. He saddled his horse at daybreak. At the end of the street he turned right and passed through the tower gate that guarded the Petit Pont, the bridge that led to the island city in the middle of the river.

The wooden houses on either side projected over the edges of the bridge. In the gaps between the houses were stone benches where, later in the morning, famous teachers would hold open-air classes. The bridge took Jack into the Juiverie, the island’s main street. The bakeries along the street were packed with students buying their breakfast. Jack got a pastry filled with cooked eel.

He turned left opposite the synagogue, then right at the king’s palace, and crossed the Grand Pont, the bridge that led to the right bank. The small, well-built shops of the moneychangers and goldsmiths on either side were beginning to open for business. At the end of the bridge he passed through another gatehouse and entered the fish market, where business was already brisk. He pushed through the crowds and started along the muddy road that led to the town of Saint-Denis.

When he was still in Spain he had heard, from a traveling mason about Abbot Suger and the new church he was building at Saint-Denis.  As he made his way northward through France that spring, working for a few days whenever he needed money, he heard Saint-Denis mentioned often.  It seemed the builders were using both of the new techniques, rib-vaulting and pointed arches, and the combination was rather striking.

He rode for more than an hour through fields and vineyards.  The road was not paved but had milestones.  It passed the hill of Montmartre, with a ruined Roman temple at its summit, and went through the village of Clignancourt.  Three miles after Clignancourt he reached the small walled town of Saint-Denis.

Denis had been the first bishop of Paris.  He had been decapitated at Montmartre and then had walked, carrying his severed head in his hands, out into the countryside to this spot, where at last he fell.  A pious woman had buried him and a monastery had been erected over his grave.  The church had become the burying place for the kings of France.  The current abbot, Suger, was a powerful and ambitious man who had reformed the monastery and was now modernizing the church.

Jack entered the town and reined in his horse in the middle of the marketplace to look up at the west front of the church.  There was nothing revolutionary here.  It was a straightforward old-fashioned facade with twin towers and three round-arched doorways.  He rather liked the aggressive way the piers thrust out from the wall, but he would not have ridden five miles to see that.

He tied his horse to a rail in front of the church and went closer.  The sculpture around the three portals was quite good: lively subjects, precisely chiseled.  Jack went in.

Inside there was an immediate change.  Before the nave proper, there was a low entryway, or narthex.  As Jack looked up at the ceiling he experienced a surge of excitement.  The builders had used rib-vaulting and pointed arches in combination here, and Jack saw in a flash that the two techniques went together perfectly: the grace of the pointed arch was accentuated by the ribs that followed its line.

There was more to it.  In between the ribs, instead of the usual web of mortar and rubble, this builder had put cut stones, as in a wall.  Being stronger, the layer of stones could probably be thinner, and therefore lighter, Jack realized.

As he stared up, craning his neck until it ached, he understood a further remarkable feature of this combination.  Two pointed arches of different widths could be made to reach the same height, merely by adjusting the curve of the arch.  This gave the bay a more regular look.  It could not be done with round arches, of course: the height of a semicircular arch was always half its width, so a wide one had to be higher than a narrow one.  That meant that in a rectangular bay, the narrow arches had to spring from a point higher up the wall than the springing point of the wider ones, so that their tops would be at the same level and ceiling would be even.  The result was always lopsided.  This problem had now vanished.

Jack lowered his head and gave his neck a rest.  He felt as jubilant as if he had just been crowned king.  This, he thought, was how he would build his cathedral.

He looked into the main body of the church. The nave itself was clearly quite old, although relatively long and wide: it had been built many years ago, by someone other than the current master, and it was quite conventional.  But then, at the Crossing [the central space from which the four arms of the cathedral radiate: the Nave to the West, the Chancel to the East and the two Transepts to the North and South. This layout resulted in the cruciform  floor plan that typifies the Gothic Cathedral.], there seemed to be steps down – no doubt leading to the crypt and the royal tombs – and steps up to the chancel.  It looked as if the chancel were floating a little way above the ground.  The structure was obscured, from this angle, by dazzling sunlight coming through the east windows, so much that Jack supposed the walls must be unfinished, and the sun shining through the gaps.

He walked along the south aisle to the crossing.  As he got nearer to the chancel, he sensed that something quite remarkable was ahead of him.  There was, indeed, sunlight pouring in, but the vault appeared to be complete and there were no gaps in the walls.  When Jack stepped out of the aisle into the crossing he saw that the sun was streaming thought rows of tall windows, some of them made of colored glass, and all this sunshine seemed to fill the vast empty vessel of the church with warmth and light.  Jack could not understand how they had got so much window area: there seemed to be more window than wall.  He was awestruck.  How had this been done, if not by magic?

He felt a frisson of superstitious dread as he mounted the steps that led up to the chancel.  He stopped at the top of the stair and peered into the confusion of shafts of colored light and stone that was ahead of him.  Slowly the realization came over him that he had seen something like this before, but in his imagination.  This was the church he had dreamed of building, with its vast windows and surging vaults, a structure of light and air that seemed held up by enchantment.

A moment later he saw it differently.  Everything fell into place quite suddenly, and in a lightning flash of revelation, Jack saw what Abbot Suger had done.

The principle of rib-vaulting was that a ceiling was made of a few strong ribs, with the gaps between the ribs filled with light material.  They had applied that principle to the whole building.  The wall of the chancel consisted of a few strong piers joined by windows.  The arcade separating the chancel from its side aisles was not a wall but a row of piers joined by pointed arches, leaving wide spaces through which light from the windows could fall into the middle of the church.  The aisle itself was divided in two by a row of thin columns.

Pointed arches and rib-vaulting had been combined here, as they had in the narthex, but it was now clear that the narthex had been a cautious trial for the new technology.  By comparison with this, the narthex was musclebound, its ribs and moldings too heavy, its arches too small.  Here everything was thin, light, delicate and airy.  The simple roll moldings were all narrow and the colonettes were long and thin.

It would have looked too fragile to stay upright, except that the ribs showed so clearly how the weight of the building was being carried by the piers and columns.  Here was a visible demonstration that a big building did not need thick walls with tiny windows and massive piers.  Provided the weight was distributed precisely on a load-bearing skeleton, the rest of the building could be light stonework, glass, or empty space.  Jack was spellbound.  It was almost like falling in love.  Euclid had been a revelation, but this was more than a revelation, for it was beautiful too.  He had had visions of a church like this, and now he was actually looking at it, touching it, standing under its sky-high vault.

He walked around the curved east end in a daze, staring at the vaulting of the double aisle.  The ribs arched over his head like branches in a forest of perfect stone trees.  Here, as in the narthex,, the filling between the ceiling ribs was cut stone joined with mortar, instead of the easier, but heavier, rubble-and-mortar.  The outer wall of the aisle had pairs of big windows with pointed tops to match the pointed arches.  The revolutionary architecture was perfectly complemented by the colored windows.  Jack had never seen colored glass in England, but he had come across several examples in France: however, in the small windows of an old-style (Romanesque) church it could not achieve its full potential.  Here, the effect of the morning sun pouring through the rich many-colored windows was more than beautiful, it was spellbinding.

Because the church was round-ended, the side aisles curved around to meet the east end, forming a semicircular ambulatory or walkway.  Jack walked all the way around the half circle, then turned and came back, still marveling.  He returned to his starting point.